How human life depends on land defence

When the Wet’suwet’en talk of land defence, it is so much more than simply defending their home.
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A woman in dark clothing facing three police wearing facie mask during an eviction from a small cottage
Screenshot from a short video from Yintah_access Instagram (posted Nov. 24, 2021, 2:22). A Wet’suwet’en water protector is arrested by three RCMP officers. They are refusing to permit an oil and gas company from drilling under their sacred river. There is a feminist Mohawk flag in the background. Another Land Defender yells “Get your hands off her!”

In late November, thanks to affordable video technologies, the internet, and social media platforms like Instagram, I sat in my home and witnessed armed Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers force entry and arrest Wet’suwet’en Land Defenders at a site of pipeline resistance. The RCMP, who came in with assault weapons and attack dogs, operated with the authority of the Canadian state and attacked Indigenous women for the benefit of industry and the elites that profit from it. The RCMP, which was created to remove Indigenous peoples from these lands, was sent to debilitate a powerful land defence movement getting in the way of profitable oil and gas exports. Coastal Gaslink (CGL) does not have consent from the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs to put their pipeline anywhere on the 22,000 square kilometres of Wet’suwet’en territory. This energy export would help fuel Asian manufacturing, which in turn would continue to provide cheap commodities to Euro-Western markets. 

In my Jewish traditions, time is understood as cyclical, not linear. When I light my first Chanukah candle on the 25th of the month of Kislev, I am closer in time to my ancestors two centuries ago who lit their first-night Chanukah candle than I am to this year of 5782 two months ago. Time is a spiral—not a straight, progressing line. Picture a slinky— one of those spirals of colourful plastic— accordioned closed, and you can visualize the marks of time across each ring/year. 

When I witness this violence on the Wet’suwet’en territory and understand what is happening through my Jewish lens of time, I feel the echoes of centuries of colonial violence and the resonance of the strong, self-knowing Wet’suwet’en ancestors who have always resisted Euro-Western attempts to genocide their people. 

The Gidimt’en and Unist’ot’en—two houses within the millenia-old clan structure of the Wet’suwet’en people—are engaging every means possible to maintain and rekindle their intimate relationship with their traditional territories. The land is not merely their “property” or “dominion” or any similar word that this settler language of English might reach for. The land is alive with ancestors, medicines, and beyond-human relations. I can not speak authoritatively to these cultural ways of knowing, but I want to try to understand the profound significance of these relationships, and I’d like to communicate why this is vital to human futures on this planet. 

When the Wet’suwet’en talk of land defence, it is so much more than simply defending their home. Freda Huson, spokesperson of the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre, speaks to this when she says: “Our people’s belief is that we are part of the land. The land is not separate from us. The land sustains us. And if we don’t take care of her, she won’t be able to sustain us, and we as a generation of people will die.” 

The yintah (Wet’suwet’en traditional territory) is full of story: in the bends of the trees, medicine patches, burial grounds, and waterways. There are trees throughout the territory that humans strategically bent over time to mark traplines and travel routes— what the lumber industry and archaeologists refer to as “Culturally Modified Trees.” There are sacred areas where berries and herbs are stewarded and harvested annually, and sacred burial grounds, like the Kwees trail, full of bones, spirits, and stories. There are rivers, clean enough to cup your hand and drink from, glacial-fed, and powerful. 

And now, in a blip of time, a speck of dust on an infinite slinky—in a moment of late capitalism where harvesting energy from the Earth is getting more remote and more desperate—there is industry trying to force itself onto the yintah. A metal snake threatens to pollute the land and water with carcinogens and substances better left in the ground. In their clearing of the “right of way,” CGL bulldozed through the Kwees trail, built a man camp overtop of a huckleberry patch (this industry worksite is ironically called “Huckleberry Camp”), disrupted the traplines and movements of non-humans, and now threaten to drill a tunnel for their pipeline under the sacred Wedzin Kwa (a.k.a. the Morice River). The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs are saying “no,” and the RCMP are stepping in with weapons and attack dogs to permit CGL’s violations to continue. 

If you still think that the police and RCMP are public agents, funded by public dollars, whose primary concern is to keep citizens safe, I challenge you to consider the entwinement of private interests with these institutions. A recent Tyee investigative report revealed that corporate funds are channelled through “Police Foundations” into some provincial police budgets so that they can buy high-tech military technologies. In Vancouver, top funders include LNG: the same company that would process, store, and export the CGL pipeline’s product; and the RBC, which happens to be the top financer in the CGL project. More to the point, as the violence on the Wet’suwet’en territory is perpetrated by the RCMP, if you look at RCMP pension fund investments, you can see what is called by some a “conflict of interest” for their presence on the Wet’suwet’en territory. The RCMP’s pension plan holds major investments in TC Energy Corporation—owner of the CGL pipeline—which gives RCMP officers personal incentive to see this pipeline forced forward without consent. These correlations are not a coincidence. This is an echo through the spiral of time from an era of empire-building when networks of elites maintained their power by threat of militia violence. We are up against a deeply structural problem, and the solution is to abolish these institutions. 

When I watched the Instagram video of the Wet’suwet’en Water Protectors and their allies holding their integrity in the face of state/industry repression, I felt both horrified and inspired. The RCMP arrested three official media personnel; the officers never meant for me to witness their brutality. You are not meant to know what is happening to the sacred yintah or to those who dare to get in the way of profit-making. And yet, we bear witness because those defending the land and water are steadfast and created grassroots media despite attempts to repress their acts of resistance. What are we going to do with this information? 

As this state repression and resistance movement echo age-old colonial patterns and connect us to age-old resistance movements, we have choices to make about how to participate in the spirals of spirit and power. May we choose to act for Indigenous sovereignty and collective liberation. 

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